"Festive" sometimes seems like the wrong word for film festivals, which can come across as strongholds of solemnity. This year's Atlanta Film Festival opens Thurs., April 15 with Freedom Riders, a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement and the freedom rides of 1961. The fest also includes movies about such cheery topics as the plight of Tibet, Proposition 8, illegal immigration, high school shootings and blind teenagers. And that's just the documentaries. Phrases such as "drug addict," "underbelly of suburbia" and "spiral out of control" frequently describe the feature film plots.
While a majority of the movies at festivals tackles heavy subject matter, a deeper focus on the programming and people behind the scenes can find a sense of humor that's usually subtle, but sometimes silly. "The tag that film festivals get is that we're bastions of liberalism. We're so serious about issues that we wake up with knots in our stomachs, because we care so much about these things. No: We're like everyone else. We want to have fun, too. We want people to come together and have a good time," says Charles Judson, communications director of the Atlanta Film Festival.
This year's Atlanta Film Festival lightens up with an unusual emphasis on comic relief, including three documentaries about the art of live comedy performance: The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek, I Am Comic, and most notably, Saturday Night, a making-of look at "Saturday Night Live" directed by stoner heartthrob James Franco.
"We always look for comedy so we can have variety in our programming, but we get more dramas because of the nature of independent film," explains Festival Director Dan Krovich. "Independent filmmakers tend to be interested in personal stories, so they tend to make dramas, because dramatic moments in life seem to have the most impact. Unfairly, comedy tends to be seen as frivolous."
Amid the hundreds of submissions the film festival receives every year, comedies face certain hurdles to make the cut.
"It's harder to get comedy films programmed, because comedy is more subjective. If you don't laugh at a comedy, it's not good. But someone else might be on the floor," says Judson. "It's not like a drama, where you might think about it an hour after seeing it, and then decide, 'You know, that was a good movie.' With comedy, you either enjoyed it while watching, or you didn't."
Krovich learned a lesson about subjectivity of humor the first time he programmed the comedy shorts for the Atlanta Film Festival. "People thought they were good, but they didn't really think they were funny. Maybe I have an unusual sense of humor. Since then, I've been viewing our comedy shorts in a more mainstream fashion. As a programmer, you want every film you show to be a good film. But you also know the films that your audience will really like, and the films that you really care about and want to be in the festival, that other people might not like."
Occasionally, indie comedies such as Clerks and Napoleon Dynamite can become crossover hits, but they tend to be exceptions. "Comedy is all in performance. You can have a brilliant script, but in the wrong hands, it falls flat. In Hollywood films, comedies are star driven. You see someone like Will Ferrell doing his shtick, it's familiar, so it's like it gives you permission to laugh. It's harder with independent films, when you don't have that level of talent or the cachet of the actors," says Gabe Wardell, Atlanta Film Festival executive director.
Occasionally, the audience or the angle of the programming provides the high spirits. Take We Dare You To Watch These Shorts, an evening of challenging, often disturbing short films (Sat., April 17, 11:50 p.m.). "These are hard films to program. You can't stick these on the animation program after Wallace & Gromit," says Krovich.
"There's probably nothing funny about most of these films, but I think the concept is hilarious," Wardell says. "We're not daring people to watch them because they're bad. 'Feeder,' for example, has a miniature camera in the back of someone's throat, so you see what a person is eating and smoking. On one level, it's educational. On the other, people can get physically sick while watching it. It's like watching surgery."
"My fear is that people will come out of We Dare You and say, 'Oh, this is nothing!'" he adds.
Wardell hopes attendees bring a similarly playful attitude to the 50th anniversary screening of Psycho, Piedmont Park's Movie on the Meadow (April 17, 9 p.m.). "I don't think many people haven't seen Psycho, or don't know the story, so I hope there's an ironic approach to it as well. There's a long scene with Norman Bates and Marion Crane talking, and if you know what's coming up, it's actually hilarious. Hitchcock knew comedy and horror could be intrinsically connected."
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